by: Jill Miller
When I first began practicing yoga in 1983, my teachers didn’t just tell me to breathe; they gave me explicit instructions on how to breathe, how to feel the sensations of breath, and how to become familiar with the muscles of respiration. When I began studying the Ashtanga style of yoga at age 22, I was introduced to ujayii pranayama, or the triumphant breath. It was a complete revelation to me.
Breath equals life. Correct breathing in yoga is perhaps one of the most important keys to exploring the practice. Ujayii breath is one of many breathing techniques used in yoga — and I recommend you try it for stress relief and mind-body health even if you’re not a regular yoga practitioner.
Ujayii breath is created by restricting the muscles in the throat at the level of the larynx (voice box), which draws the delicate vocal cords together and produces a hissing sound as breath streams through them. It also induces a warming sensation and generates a noise similar to “listening to the ocean” inside a large sea shell, or the sound made when blowing air into a frigid winter day to “see your breath.”
Creating this wall of inner throat noise is very soothing. It can feel as if you are the DJ of your own inner soundtrack during practice. Focusing on ujayii also serves as a very meditative object of concentration. Producing the sound quite literally gives you the feeling of catching hold of your breath while harnessing its power. It’s an excellent way to relieve stress, even when you can’t stop what you’re doing to get into some yoga poses.
Ujayii has its benefits, but when done to excess it can be a tremendous energetic drain on the body. By repeatedly contracting the laryngeal muscles, you create tension in the delicate vocal cords that we use to produce sounds while speaking. Done fanatically and with aggression, ujayii can produce irritation, inflammation, and possibly polyps or nodes on those fine cords.
Ujayii breathing is actually a normal physiological response that happens quite spontaneously in a body under strain; it functions to increase pneumatic pressure in the lungs and abdomen. For example, while shoving a large piece of furniture across the floor, your body will automatically brace the finer and larger muscles of the neck, core and diaphragm, resulting in a “Hmmfgh!” sound as you push. That is an extreme form of ujayii (triumphant indeed, but hardly meditative!).
I recommend using ujayii in moderation and keeping the sound as soft and internal as possible. The rule of thumb being “create ujayii so that it is only heard by you” and disturbs no one else; ujayii will be your little secret.
If you find that you’ve become so attached to producing ujayii that you’re unable to complete a breath without it, you might want to take a closer look at the simple act of breathing and relearn how to breathe effortlessly, without any tension anywhere (and that, my friends, is a whole other discussion).